EC9CFFB2-BD9D-43C2-8395-B84A29A6648CLast weekend there was forsythia blossom and frog spawn in the ditch and this weekend there is thick, thick snow covering over the world again.

Like Juliet’s father in Romeo and Juliet “ my fingers itch “ to be planting and tidying in a spring garden . However it is Pixie the cat on the warm radiator who understands real adaptability and the contentment that only cosseted cats can ever achieve!

Last week I found an old apple tree blown down in a storm. No over zealous farmer had tidied it away and chopped it up for fire wood ; the bole of exposed roots had made a new cliff of light horizontal out of what had once been vertical and deep. Moss and fungi had colonised the new surface, unidentifiable creatures had dug out homes: adaptability is everywhere – except in my itchy fingers!!




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Down to earth in Switzerland : All my gardens part 9.

Our  flat in Switzerland was like posh student accommodation. Two very small bed rooms and an open plan room with a lot of glass, but no window sill to rest my plants upon.

I never realised how much I needed walls until I moved to Switzerland. Before that I had taken them for granted, but the Swiss are very modern, love glass and see little need for walls. If you couple this with a very high population density then you have dinning rooms that loom strangely in space, over each other. You can admire each other’s cooking, cutlery and even flatulence at disturbingly close quaters with total strangers. I couldn’t get used to such intimacy and did the same as we did in Brazil, blocked it out with plants.

We bought weeping  fig trees that loved the reflected heat of our “ wintergarten” and raced away. In the wonderful Swiss second hand store or “brokie” I found a set of shop shelves, with wheels which I loaded with devils ivy cuttings, filched spider plant babies and some geraniums abandoned at the end of the summer that I fed and costeted. They responded by flourishing and giving us some semblance of verdant privacy.

The flat had no balcony, but it did have a set of concrete steps up to the front door that were ours alone. As soon as our first winter was over, I started to buy plants and to move them outside. I started with yellow primroses from the coop and graduated, as the sun strengthened, to ivy leaved geraniums, that trailed red flowers over each open step. In the wonderful botanical garden I snipped a few modest cuttings of lemon, peppermint and rose scented geraniums, potted them up and nursed them and soon it was almost impossible to get up the step and into the flat for perfumed and coloured plants.

Watering became an obsession, as each plant was in a planter small enough to fit each individual step and one day of sunshine could dessicate  the whole pot.

We had been given very precise instructions when we rented the flat about what was allowed and what was “verboten”. Using the washing machine or showering after 10 at night was not allowed; hanging out washing was not allowed and shaking a table cloth out of the window was punishable by death. I was therefore very careful not to irritate my neighbours below by over watering and dripping on their doorstep. However after two years of squeezing more and more plants into our improbably small space, My Swiss neighbour actually volunteered to water my babies when we went away and started to talk to me!

At the top of the steps we put the tiniest BBQ known to man and if we each sat on a different step there was just space for us both to eat a chicken leg and for our cat, Bonkers the Magnificent ( who had survived Zambia, Kazakhstan and  six months quarantine in England) to survey his new, peaceful and eminently edible kingdom.



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Some words are worth saying just for their sheer beauty  – murmuration is one.

Try saying it out loud and enjoy the rolling, soothing sound.

The word describes one of the great unexpected delights of bird watching: the huge, sweeping, boiling cloud that starlings form before they settle to roost in enormous numbers.

If you want to remind yourself of this magnificant fluid aerial spectacle, click on this link.

The last time I watched it was at Llangorse Lake in Powys Wales. For thirty incredible minutes the sky was alive with the twisting and blooming shapes of thousands upon thousands of noisy starlings wheeling and dancing before stettling suddenly in the reeds to sleep.  Not only was it visually extraordinary, but the noise that starlings make is as raucous and sociable as teenagers squealing with supressed news on the first day back at school .

My garden is still covered in snow and loud with competitive bird calls, as they squabble over apples and the last of the bird seed. The blackbirds cluck and fuss, the field fare hiss and stamp, but they all step back for the 30 boisterous starlings that periodically descend from the winter skies to hoover up everything going.

Starlings were once very common, but are now on the UK red list of endangered birds due to a dramatic and not fully understood decline. I can’t imagine they are doing any better just over the water here in France, so I am delighted to share my bumper bags of cheap Coop ugly apples with them.

They chatter, wheeze, pipe and trill to each other: a Twitter storm in the real world of real, beautiful birds in a cold early spring!




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Couscous and chicken for the birds.

E9383AE1-1FAC-4BBC-A936-B352CF5742C2.jpegThe unusually low temperatures have continued here. It is the end of a long winter, the birds are tired and hungry and I have time, for once, to feed them.

The cold has brought new visitors. Gangs of blackbirds demolish the apples thrown out for them. Starlings have come to ground to flaunt their shiver of green sparkles against the dead grass. The marvellously painted goldfinches have finally discovered the niger seed feeder they have ignored all winter and a solitary field fare, puffed and fluffed against the cold eats sultanas and the apples left over by the black birds.

The sparrows can’t eat their crumbs fast enough before they freeze and I have taken to putting out hot couscous that stays unfrozen just long enough for them to eat it on their table.

As ever, the shops run out of bird seed at this time of year, as they are determined to sell us spring things, whatever the evidence of their eyes tell them to the contrary.

So I dug to the back of the food cupboard to find what I could use instead and came up with: dried figs (chopped up), raisins, sun flower kernels, oats and couscous ( cooked) and rice (cooked). I found soya beans which I boiled up. The birds wouldn’t touch them. I also threw two chicken legs  onto the shed roof, which wonders of wonders, tempted in a red kite and a buzzard !

Possibly the most useful thing I have contributed so far is a regular kettle of hot water into the tin tray that is my bird bath. As all the water is ice at the moment, birds really need something to drink and the circles of ice in the picture are the emptied offerings, which shows how long it has been cold. My reward, when  I was pouring the kettle, was the distant drumming of a woodpecker and the high, sweet mewing of a buzzard calling for a mate in the clear air.



“Ladybird, ladybird stay safe at home …”

The ladybirds are waking up and my sunny bedroom window sill is alive with slowly trundling spotted bugs. They crawl into houses to overwinter and do no harm in sheltered nooks, hibernating and waiting for spring. They apparently exude a scent when they find a suitable spot to encourage others to join them in a winter snuggle and this smell lasts over a year, guiding them back the following autumn.

It can’t be heat that wakes them up as, it is colder now than it has been all year, so it must be day length, or maybe they can count the time spent in hibernation somehow (tiny ladybird watches on their tiny jointed legs?)

My house guests are harlequin ladybirds who were introduced to control aphids. They have brown legs and come in an astonishing variety of patterns. Some think they should be killed as aliens, but as I can’t resist any wildlife that manages to find a home in my home, so I decided to treat them instead. I have an overwintering geranium covered in aphids and I thought they would make the perfect wake up meal for the ladybirds.

04331262-2C84-46C4-B4BE-50E42E4F17DF.jpegThe first ladybird ate the first aphid she encountered and then sat on the stem in digestive satisfaction. The second, third and fourth ladybirds however, ignored the aphids entirely and determinedly fell from the geranium back onto the window sill over and over again. I assume the desire to fly away to a new home is stronger than hunger at this stage.

Normally I would gather them up and let them fly out of the window to take their chances at the start of spring. However it will be – 12 here for about the next week each night, so they are definitely safer here on the warm window sill. They might be longing to “fly away home”, but for now home is where the heat is!






Winter’s grip seems relentless.

After months and months of torrential rain, a few spring flowers tentatively appeared and then the real cold descended and stunned them into immobility. Shrunk by hard frosts, thin snow and polar days they lie flattened across frozen earth. Blackbirds fluffed to twice their normal size stab at apples from the supermarket and only the sedums are unmoved by the cold, waiting unperturbed in their perfect symmetry for the next season.


Kaskhstan. All My Gardens Part 8

The strangest place I have ever tried to garden was Kazakhstan.

Our first apartment had two balconies. The first faced into the courtyard of the concrete blocks . It had a washing line and you could glimpse the steppe from the top floor as it rolled out, brown and flat to distant Russia. I realised that growing things here would be difficult when after a couple of seeringly  hot months my washing froze to cardboard cutout stiffness over night.

The other balcony was boxed in with wooden sides and glass. On the shelves there were still pickles and jams, left by some previous tenant, making use of the cold space to store carefully preserved food, as everyone used to do before the supermarkets came. There was no window sill for plants, but there was an extraordinary view of the Tian Shan mountains . This was Almaty, at the far south east tip of Kazakhstan, the old capital and the most stunningly located city sprawling between the snow capped mountains linked to the Himalayas in the south and the central Asian steppe to the north.

When I lived there remnants of the former USSR were every where, but so too was the newly independent Kazakhstan rediscovering its nomadic and Muslim roots.

In our first year we managed to grow nothing, but the school had a remnant apple orchard, which was so perfumed and perfect in the spring it made me cry. Almaty is supposed to be named after the father of apples and the genetic parent of all apple trees does apparently originate in the country.

Bonkers the magnificent came with us from Zambia and after a lot of bribery and some crying, we got him through customs in one piece. He hated the apartment, there were no chameleons to chase and indoor life did not suit him. We put him on a cat lead and took him to the orchard, but he collapsed as though his back was  broken and then escaped up a tree, only to be retrieved with a broom.

We found another apartment in the centre of the city . It had another boxed in balcony full of pickles under which trams rattled and shuddered. This was in the same street as the magnificent state opera house, which broadcast its music for free on summer evening to those who could not afford the tickets to the plush boxes, but who could listen to the outstanding performance on the street, cooled by the great glaciers fed fountains .  Bonkers preferred this apartment, as the balcony that faced the courtyard was laticed with bird cage wrought iron and he could catch a breeze while watching the bats plunge out of the plane trees and listen frustratedly to the scops owls calling in the summer time.

He was never allowed out, as he would not have found his way back up to our top floor home and there were rats bigger than he was by the bins. The rats grew plump on the bread left out by my neighbours who considered it a sin to throw bread away and so it was left carefully off the floor for whoever, or what ever may need it.

To assuage his terrible yowling I ocassionally carried him down to the courtyard, where he would be admired by neighbours who would bring their own imprisoned moggies to their own windows to be introduced in a mixture of Russian, Kazakh, English and German.

On the bird cage balcony I grew red geraniums; hung spider plants and tradescantia and grew the best sweet peas ever, trailing up the iron work until the summer heat burnt them off . French marigolds grew well and a jasmine reminded me of Zambia and of Greece. Everything had to come in before the temperatures crashed for the long cold winter, the double glazing closed and the city wide heating  turned our sunny kitchen into a greenhouse.

I remember tiny bunches of the first real  flowers from the steppe: miniture  tulips and irises sold by old ladies infront of the cathedral on my birthday and wishing I could explore more of the steppe myself, and feeling the cold air falling from the mountains on my back and wishing I could really explore them too.

We explored the balcony and watched an extraordinary city instead.





Carnival with forsythia.

It’s Shrove Tuesday and I forgot to make pancakes.

After an interminable month of grey skies and rain, the sun appeared for a whole, wonderful ice cold day. Greenfinches appeared in the birch tree, a few field fare burbled over and two loud ravens called across the blue sky, their heavy dark wings beating the air. In a thermal of heat, red kites and buzzards spiralled up, mewing and fighting in a confusion of lust and aggression.

Shrove Tuesday is the day to use up all rich foods before the abstinence of lent and the only memory we have of it in Britain is flipping pancakes in a village race.

In other countries it is part of carnival ; that hedonistic party before the forty days and forty nights of lent that prepared the faithful for Easter.

In my current neck of the woods (Basel ) carnival  is an oddly irreligious scaring away of the spirits of winter with three beautiful days of grotesque, frightening masks, discordant music, drums and solemn drunkenness .

My small contribution to frightening away the winter is to bring my first branches of forsythia into the house and watch them slowly bloom in the warmth of sunshine and firelight.


Older than liverspots.


Sometimes you glimpse another time in an unexpected place. On the dripping rock foundation of a fake castle, glorifying a fictitious romantic past I spotted liverworts: very flat; very green and really very old.
These simple and strange life forms predate all vascular plants by millions of years, have no internal means of transporting food and survive on the whim of a raindrop. Flat and granular against the rock, they glisten in their encasing film of water, surviving all human attempts at immortality,  to out live us all in a single sheet of slime.




Stormy Weather.

It’s National Garden Bird survey weekend (  Jan 27th and 28th ) here in France organised by the LPO and national museum. A few clicks on the computer will log you into the Observatoire des Oiseaux des Jardins website, add a “garden” (like a profile), and key in your data.                                                   

This will allow  you to record all the birds that you see in a one hour slot on Saturday or Sunday . This annual  snap shot of the country allows the naturalists to really see the numbers and diversity of the birds that share our gardens with us across they country. This year they are particularly interested in hawfinches, coal tits, and bramblings.

I haven’t seen much of my regular coal tit this year and fear he has simply been blown away in the awful and continuous winds that have battered us this winter. A stocky parrot like hawfinch visited once this year but I think the weather has been too warm for more than the odd brambling to stray south from Scandinavia.

This weekend I did a dry run of observing the birds for a full hour and the hardest thing was actually sitting still and giving my whole attention to birds feeding around the bird table and not allowing myself to be  distracted by the messy kitchen! There were no surprises, but I found that great tits,  when full of peanuts from the feeder, will sit on one tiny black leg to digest their meal and the solitary coal tit is actually three individual birds and that we get up to 11 tree sparrows (with their chocolate cheek markings) who, unlike  their house sparrow neighbours , can hang upside down on a fat ball. I recommend having binoculars, pen and paper and a cup of tea to hand when you start your one hour watch and then you can really enjoy uniterupted peaceful observation of the busy lives of birds.

The wind has brought down so many trees, that I am surprised there are any birds left. When an oak tree came crashing down in the fiercest storm a red squirrel ran across our lawn disoriented and homeless.

B354BDC8-38DD-48CD-B273-505C3646A621 Near our village is a beautiful ephemeral stream . It only runs when the water table is completely full and most of the year the water sinks back into the porous Jurassic limestone and flows underground . After a spell of rainy weather I like to check if it is running, but most often I am disappointed as the rain is absorbed by the grateful forest, leaving nothing  to see.  After the daily déluges of this  winter however, it is finally above the ground, flowing strongly and tumbling clear from one green pool into another, glimsed lovely  between the trees.

There are some compensations for the cloudy skies!